You know you’re back in Hermann…

Recently I noticed a discussion between some Hermannites on Facebook regarding how you know you’re from Hermann when…you remember Saturday night dances at the Knights of Columbus Hall, or you find someone passed out in your front yard on a Sunday morning during Oktoberfest.

Well, I knew I was back in Hermann when one day, shortly after moving back here from Alaska, I decided I wanted to make chicken curry for dinner.  I headed to one of the grocery stores in town to pick up a couple cans of coconut milk, a jar of red curry paste, and cilantro.  In our small town in Alaska, these items were staples you could always find on the store shelves.  People are travelers in Alaska.  You might run into someone on Main Street that you hadn’t seen for a while, and learn that they just spent a month bicycling through China or had trekked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  Most people there have pretty evolved taste buds, and the local stores cater to that.

But, back to Hermann…with a hankering for curry, I decided my best bet was the grocery aisle labeled “ethnic foods”.  No coconut milk and no curry paste, but I did find some of that yellow curry powder in the spice aisle. I had forgotten that in this part of the Midwest, ethnic food refers to refried beans and canned water chestnuts.  Lasagna is made with cottage cheese, not ricotta, and the local Mexican restaurant’s specialty is a taco bar.  I can still picture my husband, Mick, taking his first bite of dinner that night, looking up at me, and saying, rather diplomatically, “This doesn’t taste like the curry you usually make”!

And so, if you can’t beat them, join them…which means fried catfish at the VFW on Friday nights, Jello salads, and chicken-fried steak – Mick’s new favorite.  But one traditional German dish has become very sophisticated during the time I was away, and that is bratwurst.  Brats were something we usually saw during festival weekends, smothered in sauerkraut.  They were really just basic links of pork sausage, seasoned with salt and pepper.  Today’s brats have taken on a gourmet twist – you can find sun-dried tomato brats, mushroom & Swiss cheese brats, brats with dried cherries, even brats made with buffalo meat.  My friend, Ralph, makes his own with apple pie filling and a little bit of cinnamon – absolutely delicious!  And, although I didn’t realize that athletic teams had “official meats”, a locally-made bratwurst from the Swiss Meat & Sausage Co. has become the “official bratwurst” of the Mizzou athletics. 

If you’re lucky enough to be in Hermann this weekend, September 23 & 24, you can get a taste of some of the best bratwurst and BBQ at the annual BarBQ and Brats Festival held in the city park.  You will see some serious cooking going on here – it’s a Kansas City BarBQ Society-sanctioned event.  There are also backyard chef competitions, a beer and wine garden, and live entertainment throughout the weekend. 


For more information about this weekend’s BBQ & Brats festival, click here.  And, now you can find everything for your brat fix right in downtown Hermann.  The Hermann Wurst Haus is open on 1st Street, producing sausages in a smokehouse in the back of the business.  You can find German potato salad, soups and micro-brews at the deli counter.  And if you want to try your hand at making your own brats, the business plans to offer sausage making classes this winter. 


Heaven under our feet…

Henry David Thoreau said that heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.  I am not a religious person, although I was raised in the Catholic church to be one.  I had my first communion at St. George Parish here in Hermann.  The group photo shows a collection of shiny little faces, the girls in white dresses and veils, the boys in white shirts and ties – our hands clasped seriously in prayer.  About 10 years later, we were all confirmed together, but we don’t appear quite so serious this time – too many other things occupying the minds of teenagers. 

Even through college I managed to get to mass almost every Sunday.  Then I went to Alaska, took one look at all the incredible raw beauty that hits you from every angle, taking your breath away, and I realized that maybe heaven is already here on earth.  At that point, organized religion seemed, well, just too organized for me.  It became clear to me that what I experienced around me, whether in nature or from the good I saw in other people, provided a much more spiritual connection than anything I could find in a physical church. 

Be that as it may, one of the most spiritual places I have ever encountered is right here near Hermann, and yes, it does include a church.  Northeast of Hermann, across the Missouri River, is the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows at Starkenburg.  Germans settled in Starkenburg in 1847, including some of my own ancestors.  The area includes St. Martin’s Church, the chapel, a grotto, the Stations of the Cross winding through the trees, and other historical features.  My father’s father had a store just up the road in the early 1930’s, one of his many attempts at entrepreneurship.  There is a B&B on the site now,  Les Lavandes, an oddly French name for such a staunchly German area.  I would say my dad’s fondest childhood memories were his years living in Starkenburg, and roaming the church grounds, illicitly shooting squirrels.  Both he and my mother are buried there.


It’s not quite accurate to call Starkenburg a religious site, because it is so much more than that.  Calling it a religious experience may steer some folks away from visiting it.  Simply put, Starkenburg’s spirituality is tangible.  You feel it around you – it has a calming effect on your being.  You can believe in anything, or nothing at all, and the place just takes you in without any needed explanation. 

The grounds at the Lady of Our Sorrows Shrine at Starkenburg are always open for meditation, a walk, or a picnic lunch under the trees.  St. Martin’s Church, the museum, and the Chapel are open until dusk each day.  Pilgrimages are held twice a year with a large German meal and mass at the outdoor alter (3rd Sunday in May and the 2nd Sunday in September).  From Hermann, go north on Hwy 19; turn left on Hwy 94 for 4 miles through the village of Rhineland; turn right on P for 2 miles – you’ll see the steeples through the trees. 

A goodbye to Callie…

We lost our girl, Callie, this weekend.  After having several bouts with severe arthritis in her back legs, on Saturday her hind quarters became paralyzed.  So, after 13 delightful years with our best friend, Mick and I said goodbye to her.

As far as dogs go, Callie had quite an interesting life.  She came from a litter of 13, and was born in an old VW bus in a campground in Skagway, Alaska.  Her mother’s owner, Abby, was working in town for the summer and living in the bus, and her dog, Two Socks, had gotten pregnant.  I’m sure Abby was shocked to realize she would have to find homes for 13 puppies, but she carefully chose the homes, and we were one of the lucky recipients. 

Abby and all of us would have birthday parties for Callie and her siblings each summer, usually at the beach at Long Bay, with plenty of space to run around.  Beers for us, and hot dogs and meatloaf birthday cake for Callie, Jasmine, Blue Bear, Lucius, Hoss, Worm, et al.  Then we would take a group picture to commemorate the day.

When we moved to Haines, Alaska, we bought a house with large cathedral windows in the front overlooking the river and ocean inlet.  One of the first things we did was build a window seat there, and that became Callie’s domain.  People stopping by often commented that she must be the luckiest dog in the world with that view.  She kept an eye out for bears, emitting a low growl when she saw one.  She somehow knew not to bark and bring attention to herself, but still wanted to give us a warning.  Strangely enough, the only wild animal that actually scared her were the turkeys here in Missouri.  They always sent her running for cover!

Callie and I in the Redwoods

She was Mick’s constant companion when he was home from his job on the ferry, and especially after he retired.  They were inseparable.  Mick was very active at the community radio station when we lived in Haines, and Callie would lie on the floor of the on-air room while Mick did shows.  You could always recognize Mick’s truck before you saw him because Callie would be across his chest, hanging out the window with one paw slung casually over the rear-view mirror. 

When we left Alaska, we had our car packed with very little room to spare.  Callie was wedged in between coolers and boxes, but she took it all in stride, excitedly sniffing out the corners of a new motel room when we stopped for the night.  She saw a lot of the country – Seattle, the Oregon Coast, the California redwoods, even the Grand Canyon.  She was a hit there, posing for pictures with the other tourists.  After being on the road for a month and a half, the car had become home to her. Even after we got settled in Missouri, she would often want to get in the back seat of the Jeep for a nap.

On the road again: Callie on our journey from Alaska to Missouri

I have heard people say over the years that getting attached to your pet is just a heartbreak waiting to happen.  Losing Callie will be a heart ache for quite some time, but we don’t mind.  The companionship and love she gave us for all those years is worth it.

You can go home again…

Growing up in rural Missouri, I daydreamed about my escape, as kids do the world over.  We always think there is something better out there.  In high school my best friend, Candi, and I would spend our study hall hour drawing up the floor plans of our future homes – hers, a rustic lodge in the Colorado mountains – mine, an apartment in Manhattan.  I wanted to work in fashion, and I would flip through the same Vogue magazines until the pages fell out, looking for inspiration as I sketched my “fall collection”.  We planned to always get our families together for holidays.  Candi was to have a son named Logan (which she did).  I would have a daughter named Willow…that maternal instinct to procreate and nurture never kicked in, and so I ended up with a black lab-mix named Callie.

            My friend Candi never found that home in Colorado, but she tries to get out of these hot Midwest summers by going to Michigan.  And although I have visited New York City a few times since I left high school, I ended up on the other end of the spectrum…in Alaska.  I went there to work with a college roommate following graduation, met my husband, Mick, that summer, and made it my home for over twenty years.  At the time we met Mick lived in a one-room log cabin at the head of a bay along the ocean.  The cabin had no electricity – he read by oil lamps.  There was no running water – he carried water from the creek and heated it on the stove for bathing and doing dishes.  Needless to say, there was no toilet, just an outhouse.  And yes, I moved in!  Which is proof positive that when in love, you are capable of doing extraordinary things.  Mick and I eventually moved into a beautiful log home with endless ocean and mountain views, watched grizzly bears from our living room window, and lived a life that for most is only a dream. 

            Our years in Alaska are worthy of their own blog, but this blog is about “life after Alaska”.  Everything runs its course, and for us, it was time to move on to the next chapter.  Mick had retired from his job on the Alaska State Ferry System.  He had also just had a pacemaker/defibrillator implant, and I was afraid that one more winter of shoveling snow might just do him in.  So I quit my job, and we found a buyer for our home, reluctantly turning over the keys.  And, on a wintry January night, with snow falling thickly, we loaded the last of our things, and our dog, Callie, into the back of the Jeep, said our good-byes to friends at the ferry terminal, and boarded the ferry bound for Washington State. 

            We had been talking about moving back to my hometown of Hermann, Missouri.  Mick was sure he could be happy there – small town life with low-key tourism – maybe we would buy a B&B.  From past visits he had fallen in love with the countryside around Hermann – the rolling hills, views of the Missouri River, the sound of car wheels on gravel roads – he already had the Lucinda Williams’ tunes going through his head – now he just needed the setting to fit the soundtrack.  Besides, winters in Missouri would be a cakewalk after all those years in Alaska.

            I was not as easily convinced that I was ready to go back to Hermann.  After spending my childhood dreaming about the life I would build outside of my rural upbringing, I had succeeded in doing it.  I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel and go home yet! I was sure we could find a nice community, other than Hermann, to call home.  So, when we drove off the ferry in Bellingham, Washington, we started driving south along the West Coast to see where we wanted to live next…first Oregon, then California.  We started heading east through Arizona, New Mexico, and before I knew it we were in Missouri in the midst of one of those famous February ice storms.  A few more hours down the road, and there we were, driving into Hermann, with Mick grinning ear-to-ear.

            Before the end of that first day back in Hermann, we had signed a contract to purchase the Grapevine Guest Suite, and by the end of the week, we had found a house and acreage in the country to call home.  I can’t say the adjustment was easy for me.  Suddenly I was back in the heartland of conservative politics, where you can still find people who have never traveled outside of the state, and avocadoes are considered exotic cuisine.

             Initially I viewed this move as a backward step in my life, but now I see it as more of a rejuvenating respite.  Whether I’m at a church picnic or watching a Friday night high school football game, or listening to the retired farmers complaining about the price of fuel at the local cafe, the scene hasn’t changed much in the twenty-some years that I’ve been away, and that’s okay.  It’s actually reassuring in a way.  You see, my time back home has shown me that self-fulfillment doesn’t necessarily come from traveling the world and having new experiences.  Those times are just icing on the cake.  Having a fulfilling life is, first, about feeling content in your own surroundings and enjoying the people and places right around you – and small towns are full of folks doing just that.

            As you read this blog, whether you are already familiar with historic Hermann, Missouri, or you are planning an upcoming visit here, I hope my reflections on life and happenings in this area of the Midwest will inspire you to return again and again, or maybe to even make it your own home some day.